Sticker shock

Published on August 6, 2014

At 10 minutes to three in the quiet of Tuesday morning, an RNC officer pulled a car over on Torbay Road in St. John’s. The police described it as “a vehicle safety stop,” and, in the relatively dry language of police reports everywhere, described what happened next like this: “As a result, a 36 year old male was charged under the Highway Traffic Act for no insurance, invalid registration and false stickers. The vehicle was impounded.”

The interesting part of that, as far as this editorial is concerned, is the false stickers.

Every registered vehicle owner knows about the stickers: they go in the bottom corner of your licence plate, and they indicate that your annual $140 vehicle registration has been paid.

This year’s are a sort of bright pink-fuchsia: every year is a different colour and has the month the registration expires in large letters, so police can see at a glance if the registration’s in place. Much, much smaller on the sticker is the actual registration number: it can’t be seen until you get up really close, so one way to make it look like your vehicle is fully registered is to, well, steal someone else’s sticker and paste it on your plate.

And stolen they are: sometimes, thieves peel them off your plate. Sometimes, they just tin-snip out the corner of the licence plate with two quick snips and peel the sticker off in the comfort of their own home. Sometimes, they take the whole plate.

How often is it happening? Well, even the provincial government isn’t sure, because they don’t keep statistics.

What the government can say is that in the six months between January and June, 2014, 2,266 people had to go to the Motor Registration Division and get replacement stickers, while 1,698 had to get replacement plates.

It’s not a victimless crime: it costs $20 for new plates or stickers ($13 for seniors), and you’re not allowed to drive a vehicle without a legitimate plate and sticker. If you do, well, you’re apparently just another unregistered driver. That means you either have to find another way to get to the Motor Registration Division (MRD), or get a “permission to operate” from the division to drive your vehicle directly there. Either way, be ready to lose a chunk of your workday waiting in line, because the MRD is only open during regular working hours and everything has to be done in person.

Here’s the thing: if you own a bicycle, leave it unlocked outside your front door and it gets stolen, you’ll know you’re pretty much to blame. If the provincial government were to order you to leave your bike unlocked, you might feel differently.

The province’s Highway Traffic Act requires plates to be attached to the rear of your vehicle and requires that they be clearly visible: obscuring them, even with a cover of some kind, is a violation. It’s just bait for the next person who either can’t or won’t register their vehicle — and you’re even more popular if your stickers are new, with 12 clear months of use ahead. (Anyone with large fines outstanding can’t get a vehicle registered without first paying the fines: stealing stickers is the only way for them to attempt to fly under the radar.)

There has to be a better way: perhaps licence plates could be bar-coded and the need for stickers could be completely done away with. Then, perhaps, unregistered vehicles could be found that much more quickly and their drivers dealt with.

Metal plates with numbers and an annual sticker?

This is, after all, the 21st century.